The former Roosevelt High School baseball player (he played all positions except for pitcher) wanted to become an architect but his love of money led him into the restaurant industry as a dishwasher who quickly became a cook.
Today, Marcel Bustos, 54, is the corporate executive chef for Milano Restaurants International, whose restaurants include Panne and Me-and-Ed’s Pizza.
“I guess when you grow up and don’t have much money and you graduate from high school and get a little bit of money (working), you feel ‘Oh gosh! I have my own money!,’” said Bustos, the oldest of four sons of a father who owned a beer-and-wine bar in downtown Fresno.
He began as a dishwasher at El Torito Mexican Restaurant (where he got reacquainted with his wife, Kristine, a hostess) and took the job as cook a day later.
Bustos recalls an “older Mexican guy who spoke no English” was the one who taught him everything, from properly slicing an onion to holding a knife properly.
The only English words he knew, said Bustos, were “do, no and OK.”
“I learned all my business skills from that guy,” said Bustos, who never attended culinary school and only lasted two semesters at Fresno City College. He has worked in Los Ángeles and the Bay area.
Today, Bustos not only determines the menus for the company’s restaurants but tinkers with new dishes, pores over computer data to see what sells well, and frets about the impact of the state’s $15-an-hour minimum wage, currently $11 an hour) when it goes into full effect by 2022.
For the record, Bustos does almost all the cooking at home although his wife of 25 years does know how to cook. “I can cook faster,” he said.
1. What was the first dish you got good at making?
“French toast. My mom used to work with my dad at night. She was a nurse’s assistant at a convalescent house. She would start dinner and tell me to heat it up or to add things, and I would finish it up. I thought it was something everybody did. But it started with French toast, and then eggs. I remember cooking eggs for the first time. Over easy egg, in a cast iron skillet. That was probably one of the first things I learned how to cook.
“At work, anything sauteed. Here it is the pasta or the chicken piccata. The chicken piccata has a pan sauce. Each order the sauce is made to order. If you go to the store there is no piccata sauce. The sauce is made in the pan with the chicken. You finish it with butter and you have to swirl it. There’s a technique to making a pan sauce. I learned that technique when I was at the hotel (Holiday Inn in downtown Fresno) in my early 20s. I worked at this hotel in Los Ángeles and that was a whole other style of cooking and everything was made to order. Each dish had its own sauce and each sauce was made to order.”
2. What has been the biggest invention that has changed the way restaurants operate?
“When I first started, things weren’t done on a computer. The tickets that went to the kitchen were handwritten by the servers. So everybody had a code they had to right. OE meant over easy if it was eggs. You had to decipher everybody’s writing. Once things went to computers and point of sale, a server puts in the order right here and the order comes up in the kitchen. The computer can track what we’re selling, how many we’re selling, how many we’re selling in the day and in the evening, things like that. There’s a lot of data there, and it comes in useful. Honestly, that’s the majority of my time now, analyzing this data, and trying to come up with a better and more efficient way of doing things. What’s selling? Why is it selling? What is a good food cost? What’s making me the most money?”
3. When creating a menu, what is the No. 1 thing you take into account?
“No. 1 is presentation. It’s got to look good. People eat with their eyes first. And then second, it’s got to taste good. And I think third is: Can you make money making it the way you want. Is it profitable? And then the other part is how easy is it to execute in the kitchen, as it fits in with everything else you are doing.
“We make major changes (to the menu) three times a year, minor changes are every other month. With recipes, you need to figure out how easy is it for a cook to execute with their skill level something I make. I know I can make something, and it’s easy to make one thing when there’s nobody around. But, when it’s busy and they have to make something, how easy is it to execute?”
4. It seems like a new restaurant springs up every week. And just as many shut down. What are the keys to making a restaurant successful?
“Being realistic about what your expectations are. If you say you are going to do 100 people for lunch and 200 for dinner every night, depending on your location, is that realistic? Most of the time, new restaurant operators are not realistic about foot traffic that they can sustain. A lot of people don’t do the math, or they’re not realistic about what can actually happen every day.
“People who open restaurants, I’m pretty sure they made some food (and friends tell them) ‘Oh, this is great. You should open a restaurant.’ But I always say, cooking is the easy part. Everything else is the hard part where people fail.”
5. How did you create the most popular dishes?
“The most popular at Panne’s is probably the grilled salmon salad. That’s a funny story. Almost every dish has a little story behind it. The grilled salmon salad we make with a tomato orange salsa. Chicken piccata is next popular.
“I would make a mango-pineapple salsa whenever I would make a fish dish at home. That’s my wife’s favorite. But, mango and pineapple aren’t really an Italian theme, so I came up with oranges and tomatoes and basil instead of japaleño and cilantro, traditional salsa. So I came up with this fruit salsa, tomato-basil salsa. Originally, I didn’t call it salsa because it wasn’t spicy. I called it an orange-tomato relish. I guess those words on the menu didn’t sound too attractive to customers and we didn’t sell that many. We changed he word relish to salsa and it became our No. 1 seller. And all I did was change one word on the menu.”
6. Can you talk about how you developed the Blast Pizza?
“The pizza itself originated in this restaurant. I had to do an event where the customer wanted 50 pieces all at once for his group. Our pizza oven only holds about eight. Well, how am I going to cook 50 pizzas and get them all hot at the same time, or within a short period of time when I can only eight at a time? And each pizza was taking 8-9 minutes to cook? So, what I did was I pre-cooked the dough. So we made a pre-cooked crust. Then we built the pizzas and then when the customer came in and we threw the pizzas into the oven and all we had to do was melt the cheese. I cranked the oven up to 800 degrees. It cooked the pizza in less than 2 minutes. So I rotated these hot pizzas through the oven and I had the servers take them out really quick. And it made a better pizza than I was making before. So, that was the beginning of it.
“When quick-fired pizzas started coming onto the scene, I went to my boss and told him, ‘Hey, I got the pizza that will beat all of them.’ That’s how it came about. The other part of it was pre-roasting the vegetables because the pizza wasn’t staying in the oven that long. We also seasoned them a little bit. They had more flavor than a plain zucchini or a plain onion.”
7. What is the difference between a chef and a cook?
“A chef is in charge. He’s in charge of the cooks, the food ordering, the menu what’s one there, responsibility for the costs, making sure you are running the correct costs on the purchases, making sure you are being efficient on the product that you’re purchasing, making sure you have the right amount of staff for the level of service, and then making sure the cooks are executing the recipes the way they were designed.”
8. Can new dishes be created?
“I look at magazines, I watch TV, I try to eat at different restaurants. If I see something interesting I’ll try to figure out how I would make that. If I see a recipe, I’ll switch out these items and present it a different way. I read this article last week, one of the famous chefs, saying that there’s no new vegetable or food or meat being invented. We just have to try to recreate or reinvent the things that have been made. I fall into things by accident sometimes.
“We have a dessert, a baked hot chocolate. I wanted to make something with this really great chocolate. So, I ordered a small amount. They accidentally sent me a 25-pound box of chocolate. So, I had all this chocolate and I was like, well, I gotta do something with it. I wanted to make a lava cake. It was popular at the time. I got a recipe that I liked, but I didn’t want to have to buy molds to make a bunch of them. But, I had been practicing in a coffee cup. I was thinking, what if I leave it in the cup? It looks like a cup of chocolate. So I baked it in a cup and put whipped cream on top of it. I called it a baked hot chocolate. It became a best seller, just by accident.”
9. Who cooks at home? You or your wife?
“I do. My wife can cook, but I’m faster. I enjoy cooking at home. It’s kind of relaxing to me. It’s also another place where I can experiment. Almost everything I’ve made in the restaurant started at home. (Family) are guinea pigs.”
10. What do you see in the future for restaurants?
“The one thing about healthy items. I think people like to see them on the menu, but they don’t always necessarily order them. When you go out, it’s kind of your time to indulge yourself, to treat yourself. That’s just what I’ve seen.
“As far as food-wise, just trying to stay with more raw ingredients, less processed ingredients. I think people are trending that way. Things like kale and quinoa splashed onto the scene. I don’t thing they will go away. Ten years ago, kale was just decoration. We used it to decorate a salad bar. No one ate it. And now it’s on everybody’s menu.”
“The other part is you’ll probably be seeing a little more automated. With minimum wage set to go up $1 a year until it gets to 15 bucks, it is going to be hard for restaurants to keep at their current service levels without charging a high price for food that you’re getting now that is reasonable. When everybody’s making $15 an hour, that’s going to be tough. I think you’ll be seeing a lot of restaurants close because they won’t be able to sustain that or won’t have a plan to sustain that. I’m trying to make moves now. I’m trying to be a little more cost effective on our food costs so that we can spend a little bit more on our labor costs. You need bodies to cook the food.
“The other thing I’ve noticed is probably started last year is a big shortage in people that want to cook. It’s hard work. This industry isn’t for everyone. I’ve seen grown men cry (laughter) and walk out of the kitchen because they couldn’t handle the stress.”